“Revisiting the Past”: Estonia at Adorno London 2021

“We should not forget the rear view mirror; keep the wisdom and develop your ability to question and rethink. It will take us forward.”

– Kai Lobjakas, curator of the Estonian collection, “Revisiting the Past”

“Revisiting the Past” is part of Adorno London 2021, presented during London Design Festival, 18 – 26 September. Visit the collection as part of Tactile Baltics, an exhibition hosted at Dray Walk Gallery – Dray Walk, off Brick Lane, London, E1 6QL – 18 September to 3 October, M-F: 10.00-18.30 / S-S: 10.00-17.00. “Revisiting the Past” is kindly supported by Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design & NID.

Taking a step into history, a classically decorated space filled with overlapping stories takes shape. Our eye is drawn along the characteristic panelling, up to the vaulted ceiling, and around the room to rest on the objects that inhabit it. Through dimmed lighting, a mood of reverence, of contemplation, settles over the scene in front of us. At the centre, period furniture is hidden from sight, though their recognisable forms – a chair, a loveseat, a grandfather clock – are evident through molded paper. Interspersed between these sculptural forms from a past era are contemporary objects whose textured surfaces, intricate patterns, and bold colours connect us to the present. Drawing closer, we note their use of long-held techniques and references to previous iterations of design, linking them directly to the room and hidden pieces surrounding them. In this space, built up with the multifaceted layers of time, we are reminded of the complex relationship between what was, what is, and what will be.

Looking to the future of design, “Revisiting the Past“, curated by Kai Lobjakas, is based on tracking the everyday and the conventional, translating observations, reconsiderations, and hints of the past into contemporary design. Presented in a space inspired by Riin Maide’s “Paper Castle” installation hosted at the Estonian History Museum earlier this year, the collection investigates what we need, how much we need, and what remains after change. Each piece speaks to the notion that “the past is heavily coded in our future” through their use of material, function, or form. Some make reference to Estonian heritage, as in Kärt Ojavee’s “Resting Sail” and Oliver Kanniste’s “Hidden Form”; while others explore familiar functions and forms from a new angle, as in Aap Piho’s “Spatial Structures, Johanna Ulfsak’s “Floor Plan”, Kadi Hektor’s “Aladdin”, and Kateriin Rikken’s “Lights Up”. As a whole, the collection presents a recognisable vision and encourages both the audience and makers to draw on and rethink past wisdom when moving forward into the future.

“Revisiting the Past” features work by Aap Piho, Johanna Ulfsak, Kärt Ojavee, Kadi Hektor, Kateriin Rikken, and Oliver Kanniste.

Revisiting the Past

What are the main themes present in “Revisiting the Past”?

It is obvious that we are stuck in the past in the best sense. We depend on the past and rethinking the past is coded into the future. The collection gathered here under this theme approaches this multi-faceted subject in six different ways.

What is the significance of the Riin Maide installation from Maarjamäe Castle / Ajaloomuuseum that your collection is presented in?

In her installation, Riin Maide is – in a tender way – working with the idea of past, the imaginary, and memory. [She touches] upon reconsidering the idea of past, the possibilities and limitations in seeing, understanding, and rethinking it with a sufficient amount of precision or rather, the lack of too much precision and underlining. It fits perfectly alongside the concept of the current Estonian collection – thinking through the past. Her installation perfectly cooperates with the idea of the collection as a reflecting tool and provides a supportive setting both concept and space-wise. It is equally important that she is playful and ready to have the installation be a stage [for this collection].

Kateriin Rikken, “Sokslet”

How would you describe the contemporary design scene in Estonia?

The Estonian contemporary design scene is very practical. A lot of new initiatives and practices have arisen during the last couple of decades, only a few have survived. There is a lot of testing and yearning for [experimentation], which can currently be considered a luxury.

Your curatorial statement reflects on how the past is ever-present in our present and future. How has the past (techniques, materials, forms, etc.) been presented in the pieces selected for this collection?

In the current Estonian collection, every piece [deals] with the past in its own specific way, either [through] material, function, or form. Providing hints [or] slight reminders of what has been is the key theme this time.

Last year’s Estonian collection for Virtual Design Destination, “Can You Feel It?”, explored the physical disconnection created by the pandemic. In terms of “revisiting the past”, what do you think designers have untangled, translated, and reconsidered over the last year in their work this year?

The past year has given us a chance to get a more clear perspective of what the new stability and perspective might be. What is lost and what will stay. What do we need?
I’m hesitant in stating that design practices in isolation have been totally reshaped, but I’m sure we’ll be seeing the changes soon enough.

How do the pieces in this collection relate to the theme of Adorno London 2021, “Designing Futures”?

The works in the Estonian collection relate to Adorno’s 2021 theme [by focusing] on the future via their ever-present looking back and bringing what is taken from the rear-view into the future in modifications. It is a solid method and, this time, it’s about the new, sparkling approaches: Oliver Kanniste is doing it by using a deeply Estonian material, limestone; Kärt Ojavee, by the practice of sailing; Kateriin Rikken, by using the readymade details of the industrial past; Kadi Hektor, in a more ephemeral approach to a classical everyday form; Aap Piho, by constructing one of the simplest forms; and Johanna Ulfsak, by connecting two sides of heritage in an unusual way.

What do you think the future has in store for contemporary design in Estonia?

I hope that future contemporary Estonian design will see a greater opening up both locally and to wider audiences. That is what Estonian design needs. There is so much potential to introduce!

Meet Kai Lobjakas, curator of “Revisiting the Past”

Kai Lobjakas is an Art Historian and curator, head of Estonian Museum of Applied Art and Design (member of international ADD network), and is a head of International Council of Museums ICDAD committee. She has curated several Estonian and international design exhibitions, given lectures on design, studied and written on Soviet and contemporary Estonian design and applied arts practices.

Can you give a bit of insight into your approach to curating this collection?

My curatorial perspective and approach for the current collection consisted mostly of contemplating the possible future scenarios in the widest sense. How much and what do we need, where is the core of our existence in materiality, what remains after the decisive acknowledgement of the need for change? What I’m constantly looking for in design and curating, and what drives me especially this time, is being responsive to the world around us, rethinking the existent and conventional – habits, materials, functions, systems – without losing touch with the outset/origin. So, there is a selection of narratives and forms of making in the collection, celebrating the skill and joy in thinking and making.

If the viewers of “Revisiting the Past” could take one concept or piece of information away from it, what would you want that to be and why?

We should not forget the rear-view mirror; keep the wisdom and develop your ability to question and rethink. It will take us forward.

“Revisiting the Past” is kindly supported by:

Related Articles

“Postapocalyptic Kaffeehaus”: Austria at Adorno London 2021

The Austrian collection, “Postapocalyptic Kaffeehaus”, curated by Gabriel Roland, examines the continuation of everyday ritual in the face of altered circumstances. Looking to a radically changed future, the collection re-establishes the storied experience of the Viennese coffee house with pieces attuned not only to the needs of the ritual itself, but to the aesthetics of an altered world.